One Saturday in Staten Island, Sondra wakes her thirteen-year old daughter up at the tender hour of 3:30 a.m. for a lacrosse tournament with her team, the Brooklyn Admirals. Kandice promptly gets up and dresses in a pink velour hoodie and jeans. Her name perches on brushed gold hoop earrings and flashes in big bold letters from her belt buckle in rhinestones. She puts on a toy knuckle ring. The fingers spell out P-I-M-P. Mother and daughter drive over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and board the charter bus at 5:30 a.m. The girls’ team is going to Pennsylvania. Despite the early hour, there’s a buzz, the kind that comes with the anticipation of a big trip, and the excitement of teenagers seeing friends they haven’t seen in a week.
At 6 a.m., the bus is ready to go and Beverly, a mother of six-year-old triplets, all participants in this program, leads a prayer. She asks for a safe drive and for God to hold back rain. She prays, “Oh lord, that we’d be able to play our best, that we’d show good character, good team spirit, and good sportsmanship.” But everyone knows that this prayer is just icing on the cake. Not only are these girls all A/A+ star student-athletes, but they are also products of hard-working parents and family support.
The Brooklyn Admirals, a year-round youth lacrosse program for boys and girls, is the only program of its kind in all of the city’s boroughs. The striking thing about this program is that contrary to lacrosse’s image as a mostly white upper-class sport, the Admirals predominantly come from African American families. Although they represent a full range of economic backgrounds, the majority are middle-class. There are also participants of Puerto Rican, Yemeni and Brazilian descent.
The success of the program starts with the sport itself. Lacrosse’s novelty is its first lure, but once the kids are introduced to the stick, ball, and game, they’re hooked. Parents, who once waited on the sidelines to take their child back home after practice, have also caught the bug and are beginning to pick up sticks of their own to play catch with their children during the week.
“The key is that I don’t recruit the kids, I recruit their parents,” says Kevin Graham, Founder and CEO of the Brooklyn Admirals. “That’s the mesh. [In some cases], parents are worse than the kids. They’re used to drop-and-running”. I’m trying to say, “No, this is your time”. Teresa, one of the many dedicated mothers, explains that she has been taking a two-hour train ride from Queens for four years in order to bring her son to his Saturday games and practices.
On this Saturday-morning bus to Pennsylvania are young adults who are incredibly well-spoken, engaging, and self-motivated. Their visions of the future reflect a “big picture” sensibility: Kandice wants to be a lawyer and Judit, an artist; Zanaya wants to study psychology, perhaps at Syracuse University; Maya wants to work for NASA and go to college in Hawaii. Amanda wants to go in the arts or be an oceanographer-”I love rocks and I love the water,” she says earnestly. Most of these girls are only thirteen years old or younger.
According to Graham, it is important that these children “see more than the five square blocks around their house. My hook is that we travel. We get out of the city.” The teams play in tournaments at Yale University, Howard University, SUNY Binghamton, Hofstra; they travel to Maine, Pennsylvania, stay in hotels, college dorms; they visit cities and campuses they have never been to and sometimes have never heard of before. “The whole experience makes them look forward to going to college,” says one parent. The program also helps players go to lacrosse summer camp, upstate or out-of-state. Many camps provide full or partial scholarships, and the parents supplement the rest by organizing fundraisers.
“We have pulled together a unique group of kids,” says Harold Jones, Executive Director of the program. “Most of these kids are good students that had nowhere to go because there are not a lot of places in our community for just good students. For athletes, yes, but not just good students. So we found a way where you can be a good student and play a sport, and perhaps get a scholarship.” Many of the students were recruited from girls’ and boys’ football and soccer leagues, and many were recommended to the Admirals program by their school principals. In addition, Graham has created lacrosse programs in several parochial schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant through which he actively recruits prime candidates for the Admirals. News of the Admirals travels by word of mouth through other youth sports leagues, through schools and churches, and by community newspaper ads.
Graham created the organization to provide much needed services to his community’s youth. He saw lacrosse-a sport almost entirely exclusive to elite private junior high and high schools and universities-as a perfect opportunity.
Graham was the football coach and the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Colts when he stumbled upon lacrosse for the first time, in his sister’s affluent Long Island neighborhood. Despite the stick (with the net on top) held by each player used to throw and catch a hard rubber ball, he concluded that this fast game had rules like basketball but was played on a soccer field.
Eventually, Graham also discovered some other things about lacrosse: its bridge to elite institutions, scholarships that were available for sixth graders and up, and the need for younger start-up programs to feed into these private and prep school lacrosse programs. He felt that his community of inner-city youth was shut out from this ripe opportunity; youth from the affluent suburbs of Nassau and Westchester counties had the advantage, because they picked up lacrosse sticks as soon as they could walk.
Seeing the potential, Graham asked himself, “How can you get more scholarships? Through football or lacrosse?” With football, “I would be able to secure eight scholarships if I were lucky.” But with lacrosse, the “numbers were in the range of 40 for athletes who were academically sound students.” So in 1999 he created the program for boys, then he added the girl’s program in 2002. The program today boasts a membership of 60 boys and 22 girls.
Not all parents are thinking of private schools and scholarships when they send their kids to lacrosse practice, but many hope for them. These parents voice well-known concerns about the city’s public schools: large student-to-teacher ratio, unmotivated and disruptive students, poor curriculum, and teachers and school administrators not directly invested in their children or community. “You get into a good [private] school now, you’re really raising your chances of getting into a really good college,” says one parent. “When you’re in public school, you really have to be outstanding and get noticed-you have to be a genius.” For this reason, Graham is concerned with recruiting parents to the Admirals program. “Parents also have to see what the bigger picture looks like on the Ivy League setting-they will be required to be actively involved.”
Another Saturday afternoon in June, fifteen parents of the Brooklyn Admirals sacrifice this perfect summer day to convene around a long table in a dingy City High School locker room under the harsh glare of fluorescent tubes. On the other side of a small window, their sons and daughters run freely on the turf field. A cool breeze sends relief under a cloudless sky. One player laughs at his own fumbling of the ball; another hustles under the persistent direction of her coaches. The kids work hard and play even harder. In the meantime, their parents address the listed issues on their copies of the meeting’s agenda: #11-Summer camp, #12-Scholarships, etc.
Funding is a critical factor. Corporate grants and parental fundraising support the program. US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body, helps the Admirals with everything from grants to information on conventions. Manufacturers as well as individual retailers, like Olympic Den in Long Island, have donated the expensive equipment required to play the sport. But the astronomical costs of private education “is like buying a house or a car,” says Sondra. Without scholarships, the doors are essentially closed.
At the parents’ locker-room meeting, they discuss the four boys who had just been accepted into Rhode Island’s Portsmouth Abbey School and the Trinity-Pawling School in upstate New York-but without scholarships. Tuition alone is $30-$33,000 per year, per student. Graham is confident that they can raise $85,000 before September to assist those families. Many parents in the room don’t seem so sure. “Seventy-eight percent of the children who started out with us are now standing in the door, having been admitted,” says Jones, “but parents are finding hurdles to jump which are financial.” Teresa, who couldn’t get funding for her son after he was accepted into Brooklyn’s prestigious Poly Prep Country Day School, struggled, persisted, and got him through his first year. By his second year, the school made financial commitments to him because of lacrosse. “It was really a sacrifice, but it paid off because my son is in prep school, and he’s doing wonderful.”
For more information on the Brooklyn Admirals, check out www.brooklynadmirals.com
ContributorKaren B. Song
Karen B. Song is a writer based in Brooklyn.